Croken: Found in Translation– How a Thirteenth Century Islamic Poet Conquered America

Ryan Croken on translating the mystical poet Rumi, and on how Muslims are translated and mistranslated in America.

Jalal al-Din Rumi was born in Afghanistan, wrote mainly in Persian, and lived much of his life in Konya, in what is now Turkey. He has some mixed Persian/ Arabic and Persian/ Greek verses, as well.

Coleman Barks’s transmogrifications of Rumi have made him the best-selling poet in contemporary America, with tens of thousands of volumes sold.
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This phenomenon recalls the popularity around the turn of the century of Omar Khayyam, another medieval Persian poet, who, however, was known for being a closet atheist, cynic and libertine rather than a neoplatonic mystic and moralist like Rumi. Khayyam was an astronomer and scientist; Rumi was a court judge who dealt with people’s problems every day. Although Fitzgerald’s loose translation of Khayyam sometimes caught some of his spirit, in other instances he reversed the poet’s meaning. Khayyam at one point castigates people who believe in astrology and think that their fates are determined by the planets. Khayyam, being an astronomer well aware of the laws of motion as then understood, observes that planets and stars “are a thousand times more helpless” than human beings. Fitzgerald reverses his meaning and delivers him into a supposed Oriental fatalism. I think upper crust Westerners inclined to secularism and a little fun used Khayyam as a foil to the evangelicals of Victorian times. Nowadays Americans use Rumi for spiritual individualism.

My favorite Rumi anecdote, and I can’t remember now where I heard it or how solid it is, concerns his exchange with a general. The story goes that a military man criticized Rumi and other mystics for devoting themselves to imaginary matters like spirituality and miracles. Rumi is said to have replied that generals devote their lives to fighting massive battles and spreading death and bloodshed over borders between countries, and what could be more imaginary than a border demarcating territory. It is just in the mind, after all. And, spirituality, Rumi said, at least doesn’t kill anyone.

For more on Rumi and his life see Franlin Lewis’s “Rumi–Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings, and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi”.